Leeds United U18s given past, present and future motivation ahead of Elland Road FA Youth Cup semi-final

Leeds United take on Millwall in their FA Youth Cup semi-final on Thursday night at Elland Road
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Leeds United U18s won't have to look too far for inspiration when it comes to this Thursday's FA Youth Cup semi-final against Millwall on Thursday night. In fact, they'll be reminded of what's at stake just before they head out onto the Elland Road pitch when they catch a glimpse of the club's honours board.

It's a board that features three First Division titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup, but sitting proudly amongst such achievements is the FA Youth Cup, which the club have famously won twice. Of course, the first of those wins came in 1993 as the Whites managed to see off a Manchester United side that has gone down in English footballing folklore over two legs. The likes of Jamie Forrester, Noel Whelan and Matthew Smithard were the heroes on that occasion.

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Leeds managed to repeat the feat four years later in 1997, too, as Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, Stephen McPhail and co, picked up a 3-1 aggregate win over Crystal Palace.

The class of 2024 have the opportunity to add themselves onto that board and should they pick up the win over Millwall, they will move to within just 90 minutes of doing that. The Whites have enjoyed a relatively strong season up to this point, but the Youth Cup has been the high point and having seen off Norwich City, Brighton and Hove Albion, Sheffield United and Liverpool to reach the final four, they know they are within touching distance of making history.

"I think this has been a journey for us as a group and the academy," United's U18s boss Rob Etherington said as his side prepare for what is easily the biggest occasion of their young careers to date. "We've tried to connect the players to the history of the club and the values of the club.

"It's something quite ingrained in the academy, it's not necessarily something new, I think the FA Youth Cup is a good hook to talk about these things, the history of the club and the values and the people that we represent. A lot of our players are from Leeds, they grew up wanting to play for Leeds and they kind of have that opportunity.

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"We've used clips of the previous time we won it to if anything show the connection between the academy and the fans. When you look back at the last time we won it, Elland Road is full, it's not an academy game, it's a Leeds United game. I think that's what separates us from a lot of other football clubs, having one of our own is something quite special and people have a massive interest in that. That ties into what we've tried to create with the players, people want to see them do well and people want to see them out at Elland Road."

If history isn't a motivating factor for some of Etherington's players, the present certainly will be, as familiar faces from the club's youth ranks continue to step up to Daniel Farke's first-team fold. Archie Gray's story has been well-documented by this point, but the England U21 international would be involved with the rest of the U18s had he not made such remarkable progress.

Charlie Crew is another player who has been recognised by Farke in recent weeks, and while he is still waiting for his debut, he has been included in Leeds' two most recent Championship squads. Crew won't turn 18 until June, meaning he is technically eligible to represent Etherington's side, too.

"I think it's something that's been quite consistent at the club for a long time, that pathway into the first-team. I think our young players see and they're inspired by it," the coach added. "We share the same site, we're on the same training ground and in the academy canteen there's a list of every single academy player that's made it through to the first-team. They're reminded about it every single day. Archie and Charlie are the most recent examples of that."

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Leeds have made a big push to get as many supporters into Elland Road as possible on Thursday night and as of Tuesday afternoon, the club had sold 8,800 tickets for the game. The club are hopeful of welcoming a five-figure attendance on the night, though, and that only promises to add to the occasion for Etherington's young side.

"I think it's really important," he said. "The journey up to this point is to give them different experiences and to be in a position where we're in a semi-final, hoping and expecting over 10,000, is the perfect stepping stone for where the group are at. The players will experience something they've never experienced before and we'll learn a lot about the players."

Tickets for the clash, which kicks off at 7pm on Thursday evening, are still available to buy on the club website with adults priced at £6 and concessions at £3.

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